BY: LAURA ROJAS
The story of Emilie Goissiaux, a 25-year-old artist living in Brooklyn but originally from New Orleans, is an amazing one. In 2010, an 18-wheel truck hit Emilie, giving her a traumatic brain injury, multiple fractures, and leaving her in a coma. Her boyfriend, Alan Lundgard, was able to bring her back into consciousness by taking advice from Hellen Keller’s teacher and spelling out the phrase “I love you” on her hand. Immediately, Emilie responded.
She left the hospital with multiple triumphs but not short of loss—she had been permanently blinded as a result of her grave injuries.
The story, featured on Radiolab in 2011, received so much public attention that upon reconnecting, host Jad Abumran told Emilie he felt like he’d been hanging out with her for years but just hadn’t seen her.
Emilie Gossiaux using the brainport
Emilie’s second appearance on Radiolab was due to her use of the BrainPort Vision Device, a unique electric concoction that had been able to give her back her sight. After the accident, Emilie was forced to develop her own ways to navigate throughout the world, made even more difficult by the fact that she’d had impaired hearing since kindergarten. Her senses were awry. As an artist, she found this trial particularly difficult, but began to adapt by drawing with crayons. “If you draw with them hard enough,” she said, “you can feel the wax on the paper.”
In the summer of 2012, Emilie got a call from the Lighthouse School, a school for the blind in New York City. Her mother had signed her up for an experimental trial in which a new technology for the visually impaired was being tested.
When she showed up, they gave her a device that looked like a regular pair of sunglasses, although a bit heavier and with a camera pointing forward attached to the front. Out of the camera ran a small wire that connected to a credit-card sized titanium square. The square was filled with four hundred electrodes, and the camera would convert images into patterns of electricity on the square.
Emilie put the glasses on, inserting the square into her mouth and placing it gently on her tongue.
“It started to tickle,” she said to Abumran during the interview, “imagine a lot of coca-cola bubbles on your tongue and all these prickly feelings.”
The idea behind BrainPort, according to author and scientist Sam Kean, is that “we actually see with our brain, not our eyes.” Each of our senses send electrical signals into our brain, which are then converted into what we perceive as sight, smell, taste, touch, or sound. The question BrainPort asks is, “what if there is another way to get signals for light and colour into our brains?” There are hundreds of pathways going from one part of our brain to another, although normally the brain doesn’t use them all. Like Kean explains, “they exist like a shut down road.” But what if you could open up some of those roads and experience sight through a different pathway than from the eyes?
The BrainPort system converts images from a video camera (at left) into a pixel matrix of various resolutions (right) that the tongue can interpret, letting a blind person see. If the tongue has a high number of nerve sensors it means that the image can be converted to a higher resolution.
Goissiaux explains that at first she didn’t know what was happening, she could just feel changing patterns on her tongue being created through the fizzing electrodes. But then one of the scientists at the Lighthouse School started waving a long styrofoam rod across her face really fast, and she saw it. “In my mind’s eye it looked like a long, white skinny stick. I couldn’t see texture or in three dimensions—it was very flat.” Vision through the BrainPort is described as a black screen and little tiny white dots all arranged to form the shape of objects. Emilie compared it to the children’s toy Lite Brite. BrainPort works by converting white pixels from the camera into a strong stimulation, black pixels as no stimulation, and grey levels as medium levels of stimulation on the tongue, creating a picture with varying levels of tiny bubbles.
When exposed to the streets of New York, Emilie recounts that she could make out the shapes of people existing around her. “Everything was really soft, like blotches of paint that were walking.” As her brain learnt to speak ‘tongue’, the shapes became more discernible and now Emilie uses her BrainPort device to go about her day.
Currently, Emilie works as an artist out of New York, using her BrainPort device to create sculptures, installations, and paintings. In a video uploaded by Radiolab earlier in January, you can see her using her device to paint.
Her boyfriend Lundgard, in an interview with Palm Beach Post, talks about her, saying, “She can envision with her mind. She can close her eyes and see colours. She can focus in on what she thinks she sees. It’s like if you’re dreaming you can dream all you want. She can picture it more clearly than you or I can.”
This incredible feat of science successively combines our brain’s super-capabilities with our senses, creating something completely innovative that can help the blind see again in a different way. If you’re curious to see how the device works, check out this video of Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Everest, using it to play tic-tac-toe with his daughter and rock-climb in an indoor gym.